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Interview With Hal Duncan

Hal Duncan

Wolven, while he works in his monstrous lab concocting his follow-up to his Magic in Comics post, offered up this archival interview he conducted with author Hal Duncan on September 14, 2006. Hal Duncan is the author of Vellum and Ink, both discussed below, and also Escape From Hell!, which came out last year.

Wolven: 1) For the record, what is your name?

HD: Hal Duncan.

W: 2) Many would say that “modern magical practice,” as spoken of by people like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Phil Hine, and those others counting themselves as “modern magicians,” rests in an idea of the manipulation of language as a way to manipulate concepts and thereby dictate perception and interaction with the world.
a. Do you think that if there is a “magic,” then it rests in this kind of manipulation?
b. How would you define a magic in which you could believe?

HD: a) I think it would have to. I’m an atheist, nihilist, existentialist, materialist, when it comes down to it, albeit with an idiosyncratic view on materialism which doesn’t preclude the irrational, the indefinite and the downright chaotic, so any theory of magic that requires a spiritual / material distinction, that posits it as an appeal to supernatural entities or incorporeal agents active in a “higher” realm, doesn’t hold water for me. If magic were to exist, to me it would have to be a natural phenomenon.

[ad#longpost]I wouldn’t make a distinction between language, concepts and perception here, as I think all three are part of a single system. Perception involves the modelling of received information through relationships of arbitrary symbols, what some would refer to as qualia maybe, but what I would call aesthemes (in parallel with the phonemes and morphemes of language). Conception involves the creative recombination of those aesthemes and one aspect of conception is that it fires off the “inception” of actions — interactions — which are themselves perceptible. So the whole process is a feedback loop in which the language(s) of sensation function as the key mechanism for translating and thereby transforming that little part of the cosmos (perhaps artificially) isolated as “me” and the slightly larger part of the cosmos that it interacts with.

Since the idea of magic is that this “me” can interact with the cosmos by means other than direct physical manipulation and thereby achieve effects which seem to violate causality, it would have to, I think, be a result of that essentially linguistic process of perception >> conception >> inception >> perception.

b) I would define it as interacting with the cosmos at point A so as to create a manipulative effect at point C, which appears indirect, non-physical and / or acausal — i.e. lacking an obvious connecting line B. If a medium of force, a line B which is simply not yet found, could be theorised and tested for such that those effects might be shown to be in fact direct, physical and causal (i.e an empirically falsifiable hypothesis), I’d be as happy to believe in magic as I am to believe in gravity. Practically speaking, if you could show that some sub-atomic particle was, like the graviton, exchanged between matter, but also interacted with the sub-atomic activity in neural systems, functioning as a mechanism of information exchange, then you have a medium by which my desire at point A can be communicated to you at point C. That might well be a theory of magic I could believe in. I want X to happen; you, without even knowing it, make it happen. It would essentially be positing an actual physicality to Jung’s idea of the mass unconscious, which is an intriguing speculation. I’m not sure that kind of theory covers the full scope of magic as people imagine it, though; it doesn’t allow for manipulating the activity of non-sentient systems, which would require an exertion of force in a way that I’m quite sceptical of.

In the absence of that sort of unknown but discoverable medium of connectivity, a theory in which the line B was untestable but rationally formulated (in the way that some highly speculative theories of cosmology can be expressed quite coherently in maths or physics but can’t ultimately be tested-for), if it modelled the behaviour of the system well (and assuming that we could find sufficient examples of A-to-C activity to require an explanation), then that would be something I was willing to at least entertain. Even if I wasn’t willing to believe it on faith, I wouldn’t actively disbelieve, since absence of proof is not proof of absence.

A more abstract theory of magic which comes out of mysticism and which I’m not entirely averse to is one in which we have a deeper underlying connectivity — as in the idea of the Quantum Universal Interconnectedness Principle or the theory that the universe has an implicate order like a holograph, where each fragment contains an image of the whole. In this idea, the deep structure might result in a basically atemporal and therefore acausal patterning. It wouldn’t be so much that A causes C by way of line B, as that A and C are, at a deeper level, the same event seen from different perspectives.

While this is entirely speculative it appeals to me immensely, I have to admit.

Vellum by Hal Duncan

W: 3) In your novel, Vellum, you seem to employ an understanding of sympathetic magic (“a thing that is like a thing is or can affect the thing”). Did you study J.G. Frazer’s Golden Bough, in order to correctly apply this theory?
a. Did you read any other modern treatises on magic? If so which?

HD: I’ve had The Golden Bough on my shelf for years as a reference book, dipping into it regularly — though never actually reading it cover-to-cover — so that is part of where my familiarity with the notion of sympathetic magic comes from. From other works of comparative mythology such as those of Joseph Campbell, or even just a general familiarity with anthropology, it’s not hard to pick up the essential idea. I read a lot of this stuff pretty fast and loose when I was in my early twenties, trying to synthesize ideas from various sources. To give you an idea of where this all comes from it’s probably easiest to list some of the relevant books on my shelf: James Gleick (Chaos); Fritjoff Capra (The Tao of Physics); Steven Mithen (The Prehistory of the Mind); Julian Jaynes (The Origin of Consciousness); Carl Jung (The Science of Mythology; The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature); Joseph Campbell (The Masks of God; The Flight of the Wild Gander); Migene Gonzalez-Wippler (The Santeria Experience).

Add to that an interest in the occult — Kabbala, Tarot, the I Ching — which led to me reading works (which I can’t remember the name of, unfortunately) by or about Aleister Crowley, W.B. Yeats, Madam Blavatsky, Jack Parsons, Terence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, and so on, and this gives you the context in which the ideas I work with in Vellum originated. The idea that “As above, so below”, which is deeply embedded in much of this seems to tie in very much with the principle underlying sympathetic magic.

W: 4) The principle of quantum entanglement is described as a state in which two or more objects must be spoken of in relation to each other, such that the operations performed on one can be said to have an effect on the other(s). Do you believe that there is a meaningful similarity between the principle of sympathetic magic and that of quantum entanglement?
a. If so, is this similarity a driving force in your work?

HD: I certainly think there’s a similarity and that it’s interesting, but I’m not sure if the meaning is more a product of our pattern-hungry nature than anything else. When I came across the idea of QUIP for the first time it made a lot of sense to me and as a writer of strange, speculative fiction it fired off a lot of hypothetical answers to questions raised by supernatural claims. What I mean is, leaving aside the notion of magic as a force — manipulating the activity of non-sentient systems — for a moment, if you could scale the effects of quantum entanglement up to the required level could it be seen as the mechanism for exchange of information, or as a deep-structural connectivity that makes that unnecessary? Does it mean that information encoded at point A doesn’t have to be transferred to point C, but is actually already there?

In essence, this would mean we’re networked to an information-rich inner structure within the cosmos — I’ll call it the Mainframe as an easy shorthand. If this were so, then a lot of weird anomalies which we otherwise have to deny as impossible or explain with intricate — and, I think, implausible — spiritualist conceits can be made sense of. Rather than rule out every alleged instance of telepathy, remote viewing, ghosts, reincarnation, precognition and so on as frauds or delusions, can we treat them objectively as empirical data to be theorised? If my thoughts at point A are as much located in the Mainframe as they are in my head, then you at point C have instant access to them since your thoughts are also equally located in the Mainframe. You can, it seems, read my thoughts. You might equally well access information in the Mainframe that allows you to visualise a place you cannot see directly, to reconstruct past events and their participants and superimpose that on your perception of the place where they occurred, to reconstruct and experience as your own the memories of a person who died before you were born, and perhaps even — if the Mainframe is as temporally co-located as it is spatially co-located — access information pertaining to events that have not yet happened. All of these phenomena would have a unifying physical, albeit acausal, explanation which could probably even be limited to an unconscious level of access between different conscious beings.

To get to sympathetic magic, however, you have to go an extra step and postulate that we as clients are able to perform operations within the Mainframe that are more than just data-retrieval. Sympathetic magic would have to be seen as a sort of command protocol in which our desires can be codified, where the Mainframe has a system or systems which translate those command protocols into physical activity.

This brings us firmly into the territory of religion and mysticism, but it’s a fascinating territory to explore, and this is exactly what I’m trying to do in a lot of my fiction. Subsitute “the Vellum” for “the Mainframe” and “the Cant” for “command protocols” and you have part of the underlying metaphysics I’m playing with. Where the religious would tend to personify the Mainframe as a God or as a pantheon of gods each with separate functions, I prefer the mystic’s depersonalisation of that, the treatment of it as a non-anthropomorphised deep structure rather than a conscious being. In dealing with the ramifications of that level of connectivity as an atemporal thing, I’m also drawn to the idea that this localised “me” might be only one part of a distributed system of “me,” that a localised event might be only one part a of distributed system.

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